[Note: The reviewer for this game was a Kickstarter Backer for this game and is reviewing based off the PS4 version. The Switch version and its issues are not reflected in this review]
Bloodstained and I did not get off to a good start. I received my copy the day before the official launch, and like a rabid fanboy I tore into it. Put in a solid three hours and called it a night. The next morning, I get a patch notice, and let it run. Come to find that this patch actually broke progression by opening up treasure chests that contained key items. After a very begrudging restart, I was on my way to a non-stop binge of this game, and over the 25 hours it took to get the platinum trophy, I found a lot to love, and a lot to be annoyed about. Not enough to put me off to the game completely. I can see what Iga was going for with his vision, I just feel like those who executed, were not up to his usual standards.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is the brainchild of Koji Igarashi (IGA for short), who has been behind some of Konami’s most memorable Castlevania titles, namely, Symphony of the Night, everything after Harmony of Despair (the mediocre multiplayer title) has been without his guidance, and it shows, since the direction of the series changed drastically after his departure. Through the PS1 and through the DS games, there was a special flavor to those games, they had a great sense of exploration, they were collect-a-thons of a different and fun nature, and they had tight gameplay. For the most part Bloodstained is able to replicate all of these things, but this time around, there’s some of that Symphony of the Night level jankiness to the game, and it causes what is essentially to me, death by Crissaegrim (read: papercuts).
One thing this game gets absolutely right is the gameplay. This is actually the most surprising thing to me, given how much other stuff seems fundamentally messed up. The platforming, combat, and general flow of the game is spot on with past Castlevania titles. The main character, Miriam, moves with the fluidity and grace that feels comparable to Iga’s previous games, which was encouraging. Jumps feel weighty, yet precise, attacks feel deliberate but also have that looseness that feels like a fighting game (attack cancels and such). These make the core of Bloodstained feel solid and gave me that sense of enjoyment that carried me throughout the game. On the other technical aspects though, this game needs some work.
I already mentioned my early start with the game and how that kind of screwed me over. It’s issues like that that permeate throughout the title. There’s one word that best describes all of this, and that is ‘jank.’ It gives a little bit of charm to the game, but ultimately detracts from the experience overall, because it is everywhere. I’m stunned at some of these issues too. One of the most common issues, is problems with the lighting system, where the whole lighting system flickers briefly and appears to reset when breaking candles. Or we can talk about item pick-ups. Since this is a 2.5D title, it’s possible to somehow get items to drop on a slightly different plane from Miriam, which means they are technically out of reach in areas with rounded terrain (looking at you, Towers of Twin Dragons). There are mechanics that help out to mitigate this issue, but when items are still out of immediate reach, I’d have to stand around and wait for them to be awarded to me. There are plenty of other issues I could go into, but I’m ultimately hopeful that throughout the process of adding to the game’s promised DLC content, the game will get some quality of life improvements to make some of these minor but annoying issues go away.
There’s a certain style of gothic beauty in Iga titles, and Bloodstained is no exception. There are times where this game can look quite lovely. But this game also suffers from a number of visual issues as well. Whether it be texture flickering, awkward and stilted animation, wonky character models (what is going on with Anne’s arms?!), or low-resolution textures, there’s something a discerning eye is not going to be able to ignore. For running on the Unreal Engine, this game performs horribly at times. Loading screens are constantly popping up in the middle of transitions to rooms within the same area, there’s massive slowdown during one fight to the point that the game is almost unplayable, there’s constant freezes when killing enemies for the first time when loading in to a new area. This game is just full of these weird technical issues that seem completely unacceptable for a game that was funded back in 2014.
Audio can also be a mixed bag at times as well. Let’s not get this twisted though, Michiru Yamane’s soundtrack is absolutely excellent and is full of throwback notes to past Castlevania games. I got serious Alchemy Lab vibes from Symphony of the Night while I wandered through the Silent Garden area. The voice acting is pretty good and features a Japanese voice track as well for those that enjoy that. What’s odd with this game is how the sound effects don’t work properly. Early on in the game I encountered a room with a pushable block, when I entered the room I could hear the sound of the pushable block being moved, but I was nowhere near it to move it. Again it’s sloppy issues like this that bring down the overall experience.
So how is exploring ‘Iga’s biggest castle ever?’ It’s pretty fun, but not without its own issues. The logical leaps I needed to take to figure out the path forward at times felt obtuse, even by Iga’s standards. One part in particular made little to no sense. In order to venture under water I first had to get an enemy to drop their shard, and use their skill to propel myself underwater, which lead to an area that gave me the shard necessary to sink underwater. There’s hints throughout the game that get conveyed by the shopkeeper, but once they’ve been read they can’t be seen again, so if I hadn’t been paying attention I would have missed a clue to help me move forward.
Collecting shards and items for the alchemy system can be a ton of fun, and figuring out how to ‘break’ the game open to myself more powerful felt like I had solved a really convoluted puzzle that got me my platinum trophy as a reward. Completing the game also unlocks a New Game Plus system, harder difficulties, boss rush, and speed run modes. There’s also a lot of content coming down the line, but as a shipped product this game feels like a good value at the 40 dollar price point.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is definitely one of those games that’s greater than the sum of its parts. There’s a ton of issues here with the shipped product that I hope gets patched to get things to Iga’s usual standard of quality. As it is right now, the game isn’t ‘broken’ but it is definitely not in the best state, as is evidenced by the issue introduced with the first patch. But, that said, I still had a lot of fun with this game. It has the soul of a Castlevania game, which hasn’t been present in Konami’s latest games at all. I’m glad that Iga was able to strike out on his own and build a competent title, definitely better than that Mighty No. 9 debacle, but Bloodstained itself has a long way to go. Hopefully the assistance of WayForward will get this game to where it needs to be.
In a past life I worked with Interplay, EA, Harmonix, Konami, and a number of other developers. Now I'm working for a record label, a small arm of casual games in a media company along with Gaming Nexus, and anywhere else that sees fit to employ me.